[Editor’s Note: We’ve got a surprise for folks today: Zack Kephart from The Musical Divide is here with a special guest review of the latest entry in the Pokémon series! If you like the review, be sure to check out TMD, where Zack and Andy post album reviews, discuss the latest country single releases, and examine the history of the genre through their ‘Fine Fifteen’ and ‘The Unbroken Circle’ series. Without further ado, let’s get to the review!]
Author’s note: While I have tried to keep this as spoiler free as possible, I am writing this from the perspective of someone who assumes the reader at least understands what this game is like on a foundational level, so as to save time and spend more time reviewing the actual game, rather than explaining it. Thank you for your understanding.
You’ll want to ready your pitchforks for this statement: I still like the classic Pokémon formula.
I don’t know, maybe it’s just the ease and accessibility of returning to something familiar time and time again, but I can go back to basically any of the past games and have a relatively fun time, at least. At its core, Pokémon is fun – simple as that.
In past years, however, my interest has waned. It’s still basically the same game, but why do I get so much more enjoyment out of returning to, say, Crystal or Black and White than I do X and Y or Sword and Shield? In a way, a lot of it comes down to us, the fans. Anyone who’s loved Pokémon from its earliest days is most certainly an adult now; we’ve grown up and changed. But, has Game Freak? In a lot of ways, no. We’ve had some changes made to the battle system here and there (though not to the same degree as Paper Mario, thankfully), but for the most part, you go through a region, form a team, beat some gym leaders, catch a legendary, and make your way to becoming the champion. And again, this is still obviously fine for an overwhelmingly large audience; again, even for me.
If anything, it’s that first-time feeling being replicated so many times over that I think has soured some of the newer games for certain fans. Still fun, but not necessarily amazing or potent beyond that initial playthrough. So when I booted up my copy of Legends: Arceus (finally, the review!), it’s like it all came back to me again. The short version of this review is that I had a blast playing through this game, and it’s likely the most fun I’ve had with a Pokémon game since over a decade ago. Unpacking the “why” or what’s really changed, however, is the tricky part. In some ways, this echoes a lot of the callbacks of that classic Pokémon formula. But it’s the way it’s all presented that finally makes it seem like Pokémon has entered the modern age.
In a nutshell, Legends: Arceus is something like Pokémon’s version of Breath of the Wild, though let’s really unpack what that means. First of all, this is the first open world Pokémon game, but there’s also some caveats. You start the game in Jubilife Village some hundreds of years before the region of Hisui became the Sinnoh we explored in Diamond, Pearl and Platinum, which acts as your main home for the duration of the game. And you’re not a Pokemon trainer – you’re a researcher tasked with exploring areas of the world (which open up to you little by little). So no, you can’t just catch a Lv. 85 creature and expect to breeze through the game (though there are some shortcuts you can take elsewhere that are gloriously fun, like catching a Togekiss while your party will likely still be in its teens), but the areas you explore are so wide open and diverse that it hardly matters. Even with a smaller cast of characters, I still found that there was often a ton to do at any point.
Of course, on the note of areas, let’s get the issue of the graphics out of the way now. No, they’re not terribly impressive, and there’s really no excuse for this to look like a Wii game in 2022. Whether or not that really bothers you is your call. For me … well, I’m willing to forgive it, but there are exceptions. First of all, you’ll be collecting stuff out in the wild just like you do in past games, only these items aren’t tucked away in neat little Poké Balls waiting to be found. And on that note, you (mostly) won’t be finding Poké Balls or Potions out in the wild, either. You make them yourself, kid.
That’s right – using items found in the wild, you craft your own supplies to survive (though you are free to buy what you want, too). And I have to say, I love this system. Money still matters, but it feels like it’s scarcer to come by, and oftentimes I found it more intuitive and rewarding to craft my own supplies. Though circling back to the graphics, while certain crafting items will stick out to players like a sore thumb, others can be hard to discern unless you’re really paying attention, and the game doesn’t ever really guide you on what’s what (spoilers: one of the crafting items for potions is called a medicinal leek, which basically just looks like a taller piece of grass and doesn’t stick out well, which I didn’t really know until, you know, a few hours in or so). And don’t even get me started on how the textures tend to glitch out whenever you engage in a battle from time to time, or how trying to find – let alone catch – Pokémon in the water is not nearly as much fun as it’s set up to be.
Outside of that, however, while I could wish for a cleaner-looking experience (though I will say the skybox is absolutely gorgeous), at the end of the day, it’s the gameplay that matters, and the element that’s changed the most. Even compared to Sword and Shield, you no longer have to run smack-dab into a creature to initiate a battle. You can either stealthily hide in the grass and wait for an opening to catch the Pokémon, or you can throw out a Poké Ball and send out your own creature to battle. And I love this system of giving players a choice of how they want to play the game.
Your main goal is literally just to complete the Pokedex, which really reverts the focus back to “catch ‘em all,” just as intended 25 years ago. You don’t go into menus to select items – you always have your team and your Poké Balls at the ready. And it even goes beyond that. Players can use berries to bait certain Pokemon to a certain position to get a better shot, or they can use other items like balls of mud (no, really), to stun them and get a better opening in battle. After all, each Pokémon is different. Some are calm, like Bidoof or Aipom, and will engage you in a friendly manner (heck, you can even play with them without claiming them as yours!). Others, meanwhile, are skittish and will try to run away as quick as possible, meaning that you have to be careful in your approach.
And others … well, there are a surprising amount of Pokémon that want to kill you in this game. Like, a lot. And while it can get annoyingly intense at points when you just want to explore at your own leisure, it’s all used to create a sense of atmosphere and adventure that’s been missing from the series for so long. You have to carefully plan an approach rather than just rely on old muscle memory tricks. Your Pokedex isn’t complete when you just catch a Pokémon – it’s completed when you actually study it. In some ways, I get the frustrations with the research tasks embedded into the main goal of this game. You may have to battle a Pokémon a certain amount of times to properly understand it, or you may have to catch a certain amount, or watch it use a certain move, or defeat it using a certain type of move. It sounds like a lot, but the fun part is that you can pick and choose which tasks you want to complete (you only need to do a certain amount), meaning that you can turn this entire game into a stealth catching mission, or you can turn it into an aggressive battling one. Or both. Or incorporate elements of both. Pokémon has needed to give players the freedom of choice for a long time now, and though it’s subtle and not quite delivered in the way we expected, it’s welcome nonetheless.
On that note, trying to untangle the strong style / agile style battle system is a bit messy without diverting this review too far off course, but I will say that I think it’s intuitive and interesting while still lacking the fine-tuning in the execution (I don’t really understand it even after two playthroughs, but I oddly like it?). To the best of my understanding, between it and the (spoilers) grit candies that buff effort levels and the return of experience candies, this appears to be a game geared toward players who want to truly use any team they want without feeling like they have to use the “best of the bunch,” so to say. To me, it appeared that they closed something of a gap with the stats, too. My early Pokémon were much stronger than they would have been in past games, but everything seemed to even itself out later on, making me think that the developers didn’t want players to worry about grinding levels too much, either. Even then, it’s much more strategy-based than before, and I like that you can turn the odds in your favor with just a little bit of planning. It’s fair yet still very challenging.
Which, really, considering how easy it is to get addicted to the catching mechanics of this game, shouldn’t come as a surprise that you’ll be overleveled for certain parts of the game and still be underleveled for others. There aren’t many trainer battles in this game, but there are some, and though they work a bit differently, this is probably the one element to feel closest to home for the series. It should also be noted that basically every battle you partake in is linked to the story in some fashion, and while I’ve seen critics note how slow-rolling this game is in its earliest stages and that the plot doesn’t really matter with a Pokémon game, this is another area that impressed me. My main critique with mainline Pokémon games of late is that they feel so linear and empty. Sword and Shield had the wild area … but it was bland, and it balanced it out with routes and towns that had no character or personality to them (it’s actually why I’ll defend Sun and Moon for bringing in some of that mystique and atmosphere back – Pokémon, to me, is better when it’s kept simple and not overblown, but that doesn’t mean it has to sacrifice that sense of adventure to achieve that).
The hand-holding is, admittedly, still there in the early parts of Legends, but it feels a bit more needed this time around. You’re a new kid in a strange land who can’t initially be trusted. Through your own actions, you help build a small town into a home full of people trying their best to understand and co-exist peacefully with strange creatures. Subtlety is, again, the key here. I loved progressing further and further through the game, knowing that a little more was being added by showing me, rather than outright telling me. The cast this time around is much smaller, and there are plenty of compelling characters within the bunch. If anything, for as many comparisons as one could throw around to Breath of the Wild, I was reminded more of Majora’s Mask. There’s a general sense of unease and dread, and like with that game, it is, surprisingly enough, the sidequests and extra tidbits that give this game its true heart and soul, rewarding players with material items but offering so much more beyond that.
Which is to say that, when it comes to the actual story, I’m a bit torn on it as a whole. On one hand, I like that this feels more lived-in and mature for a Pokémon mainline title, and there are plenty of twists and turns that keep things interesting – especially in the postgame – and actually make sense this time around. At the same time, it’s fairly easy to breeze through this game at a quick pace, and it’s really not until the end that it starts getting really good in this department. If you just want to play the game, Legends; Arceus is actually fairly short. It’s what you put into it that determines what you get out of it.
If I had to sum up the main difference with Legends: Arceus, it’s that it’s centered much more about resource management and survival than that general sense of comfort and familiarity we’ve come to expect from mainline titles. I don’t think I’ve felt this close to my team since the Gold and Silver days. But it all circles back to “why,” because on some level, every change made here does feel like it should have been implemented some time ago, or at least piece-by-piece to get here. And those who don’t want to give the game a pass for just now getting to it are free to do so, of course.
But … I don’t know. I said before that on a base level, Pokémon is, in any context, fun. And this game certainly isn’t without its many flaws. The areas are huge but can feel surprisingly empty at points. I’m actually thankful for the smaller cast of Pokémon this time around (the bulk of creatures from the fourth generation are, naturally, here … plus Paras and Spheal for some reason, even if I’m grateful to have the latter), if only to make completing the Pokedex a much more manageable goal. But there was also a sameness to the environments at points that made it feel like this was less about the Pokémon living naturally and more just showing at the exact same places every time for the player’s own convenience.
At the same time, every time I boot it back up I’m just inspired to go out into the world and watch these creatures really live and interact with one another. I’m inspired to complete the Pokedex because it’s actually very fairly doable in this game, even by yourself. I want to see everything this game has to offer because that sense of excitement and adventure is back. There’s a guaranteed way to catch a certain shiny Pokémon just like there was in Gold, Silver and Crystal. There’s a main quest that calls to mind the familial bond we saw between Marowak and Cubone in Red, Blue and Yellow. The totem Pokémon system from Sun and Moon feels like it’s been refined and better than ever before (though again, I won’t spoil anything further). And what can I say about the love and respect given to the fourth generation in scope and concept? Legends: Arceus is far from perfect, but it goes beyond that base level of fun to deliver something truly special and unique for the franchise that has plenty of room to grow, and that’s an exciting future I’m thrilled to watch unfold.
Rating: 9/10. It feels like Pokemon has finally grown up with its audience and simultaneously recaptured that old-time magic. Give it a chance – you might be surprised.